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Does Eating Turkey Really Make You Tired?

Thanksgiving Turkey dinner
circlePS/Shutterstock

As holidays go, Thanksgiving isn’t particularly loaded with superstition. For the most part, it’s a straightforward celebration, cemented by food, family, and maybe football.

However, one lingering superstition does still haunt Thanksgiving dinners: the notion that eating a large portion of turkey will put you to sleep afterward. But is there any science to back this idea up, or is it all conjecture?

The Deal with Turkey and Tryptophan

The reason turkey is believed to induce sleep is that it contains tryptophan. This fancy-sounding amino acid does play a role in helping people sleep. But here’s the thing: eating turkey alone isn’t enough to have this effect. Let’s take a look at why.

Many foods, including other meats, dairy products, and eggs, contain tryptophan. It’s an essential amino acid—meaning that we need it and we can’t make it ourselves, so we have to get it from food.

Tryptophan does a lot of useful things for the body. One of them is making niacin, a B vitamin we need to create serotonin. And serotonin, as you may already know, helps with sleeping (among other things). It’s also from where the myth that turkey makes you tired originated.

Tryptophan is necessary for our bodies to make serotonin, which helps us sleep. However, although this connection is real, it doesn’t mean you’ll get sleepy simply because you had turkey for Thanksgiving dinner.

For one thing, turkey doesn’t contain particularly high levels of tryptophan. If this effect worked the way it’s believed to, you would fall asleep after eating anything rich in tryptophan like steak, cheese, or nuts.

Turkey also contains lots of other amino acids besides tryptophan. And with all of these amino acids competing to take effect on the brain, tryptophan’s effect gets diluted.

Finally, tryptophan by itself isn’t enough to create a serotonin response in the brain. Carbohydrates actually make tryptophan far more effective, which is why you’re more likely to feel tired after eating pasta than after eating turkey. Thus, when you eat a carb-heavy meal, the tryptophan your body has saved up will take effect all at once. Unlike turkey, that’s enough to put many people to sleep.

So Why Do You Still Feel Sleepy on Thanksgiving?

With that in mind, why do you think you feel tired after eating Thanksgiving dinner?

There could be several explanations. For example, if your meal was loaded with carb-heavy dishes like stuffing, you might experience the sleep-inducing tryptophan effect described previously, which you wouldn’t get from turkey alone.

The effect also could simply be because you ate a lot, which means your body has diverted energy to the digestive system and away from the brain. Or, you might be extra tired due to a long day of travel, holiday-related stress, or a few glasses of wine.

In short, there are numerous reasons you might crash after Thanksgiving dinner. But turkey isn’t really the culprit. So, if you want to stay awake longer on Thanksgiving night, don’t ditch the turkey. Instead, try cutting out carbs, reducing alcohol consumption, managing your stress, and getting a good night’s sleep before the holiday.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »